Learning Hawaiian: First Impressions

A few days ago (four days ago, to be exact), I had grown significantly burned out from studying languages of Fiji and Rotuman proved to be a heavy challenge for me with even the most basic level seemingly out of reach (as things stand).

I decided I needed a break from my routine of having my studies of Fijian eat up any gains any of my other weaker languages would have had. I yearned for something more, a language that didn’t feel like it was a “chore” or an “obligation”. I tried to improve Kiribati and Burmese but I sort of “wasn’t feeling it” for either…not right now, at least.

Then, after having a feeling that I couldn’t shake, and a certain infatuation with a language I haven’t felt in a wrong time, I knew I made the right choice when I began to study Hawaiian (as of four days ago).

I do remember my promise to not learn any new languages for 2018. Well, the promise was to not learn any language not related to business, travel or romance. But as a game designer and someone who hasn’t played the seventh generation of Pokémon games yet (set in “Alola”, heavily inspired by Hawaii), I’m going to need to play through the games with some knowledge of Hawaii / the Hawaiian Language first. After all, I’m also designing a game set in a real world location and I’d like to see what Nintendo / Game Freak / the Pokémon Company do(es) well.

Hawaiian fit the bill. After Fijian (which I’m continuing to improve), Hawaiian seems more approachable with the sentence structure and many aspects of grammar no longer foreign at all.

What is odd, however, is the fact that there are so few letters. 13 letters (one of which is the glottal stop “ ‘ “, known as the “ ‘okina”). So “credit card” would be “kāleka kāki”. Personal names are also localized as well, and many traditional English names familiar to most Americans have been morphed into something not even remotely recognizable (Fijian had more letters so it didn’t really have this problem).

I really admire the community of Hawaiian speakers for bringing this language so far with communities and harnessing technology in every sector. I can imagine that, despite the fact that it is still listed by UNESCO as “severely endangered” (It is the least safe language in Google Translate, I believe), Hawaiian will continue to survive and proliferate contrary to all expectation.

Upon hearing speakers from universities and schools speak, they don’t speak of Hawaiian as “dying” but rather in a constant surge of revival. It seems that, from the sheer looks of it, that Hawaiian speakers seem to be more hopeful about the future of their languages than, let’s say, Icelanders would be about theirs (that said, I think that the reports of Icelandic’s “decline” are heavily exaggerated).

Hawaiian, unlike many other languages of the Pacific, has a TON of resources to learn and, I would imagine, many ways to find speakers in New York City and many other places. The amount of loan words founds in English from Hawaii is staggering (luau, kahuna, hula, wiki, etc.) The idiomatic similarities it has with Fijian also make it a lot less stressful experience and a more enjoyable one. I can imagine that future languages from Oceania will come with ease to me.

I should also say that, at this point, it seems that my true language “loves” lie with Oceania, Scandinavian and the Jewish Languages (not also to mention languages of my heritage like Hungarian, which I sadly haven’t been focusing on as much as I could have been but I was sidetracked by Fijian for travel reasons quite early into 2018. Late 2018 will get Hungarian handled, this I promise.)

I also can’t keep on picking up new languages forever and maintenance is already starting to become an issue. That said, perhaps I need to be more inventive and hopeful and silence voices in my mind telling me that I can’t. Or I need to think more deeply about what I want.

That said, at the very least 2018 brought me Fijian. It seems that Fiji Hindi (a small amount), Hungarian, and maybe Hawaiian and Kiribati can also be mine by the time 2019 comes in. Maybe deep improvements in Greenlandic and Lao as well. If I try. I had a long list of languages that I wanted to improve or at least sample in 2018, but with several new games coming out this year and changes in my life it doesn’t seem likely.

That said, I encourage you to follow your dreams in any capacity you can. Your life belongs to only you and you deserve your best shot. End of story.

kanaka maoli

The Tongan Way

It was my life’s dream to begin learning languages of the Pacific since I was a kid. The fact that I haven’t done so for decades is confusing to me, but perhaps one reason I started it this late was because I needed to hone my techniques and confidence, both of which are required in greater depth if you want to take on languages that virtually no one you know of is likely to learn or speak.

Granted, I have been speaking Tok Pisin since 2014 and Bislama and Solomon Islands Pijin since 2016. What I mean when I say “Pacific Languages” are those truly indigenous to the region, and this year brought me into the arms of three of them specifically: Palauan, Tongan and Kiribati / Gilbertese. I’ve been extremely fascinated by all of them (and I would say at this juncture that Palauan is the hardest and Kiribati the easiest).

But today I’m going to talk about Tonga, because today is Tonga National Day.

Tonga is a country that continues to hold very strongly to its traditions, being an absolute monarchy even today, as well as one in which Christian identity is taken very seriously. What’s more I would venture that most people learning the Tongan Language might be doing so because they are missionaries.

The language itself is fascinating on every level and works unlike any other language I’ve seen. Let’s hop in!

The pronunciation, like many Austronesian languages (or “Languages of the Southern Islands” which stretch all the way from Madagascar to Easter Island / Rapa Nui) is extremely straightforward. You have a, e, i, o and u, pronounced virtually the EXACT same way as they would be pronounced in Spanish. If you see a line over any of these vowels, hold it a little bit longer. This principle, thanks to Finnish (which employed lengthened vowels very similarly but uses “aa” instead of “ā”, was not foreign to me.

Tongan also has a glottal stop, noted as the “ ‘ “ character. This is trickier, and it is pronounced with something like the breathing sound in the middle of “uh-oh”. (In singing this is extremely difficult to hear!)

Now let’s introduce you to what is probably the most commonly known Tongan word abroad, an interjection that literally serves ALL purposes (surprise, joy, anger, excitement), “ ‘oiaue!” Yup, all of the vowels and a glottal stop. Also super fun to say!

The consonants will not be slurred and, much like in a language like Hebrew, always have the exact same pronunciation! Given how similar they are to English that’s not something you need to worry about.

One aspect in which Tongan has really caused me to enter a word of mental gymnastics is the fact that, instead of indicating a tense with changing a verb, you use a “tense marker”.

Let’s give an example. “ ‘oku” is a present tense marker, so if you see it, a verb that follows it will be in the present tense. And PRONOUNS also change with tenses accordingly!

 

Ou -> present “I”

Ku -> past “I”

U -> future “I”

 

‘oku ou -> I am (lit. present-marker I-present)

Na’a ku -> I was (lit. past-marker I-past)

Te u -> I will be (lit. future-marker I-future)

 

You put verbs afterwards

Now there’s yet ANOTHER version of “I”, one that is utilized when it goes at the end of the sentence after a verb. “au”

 

‘Oku ‘alo ki kolo ‘a au. = I am going to town.

Present-marker go all-purpose-preposition town verb marker I-post-verb-version

 

The various pronouns in Tongan are all calibrated in various ways according, complete with exclusive and inclusive versions “we” as well as a singular / dual / plural system.

 

Much like some other languages, Tongan also has an interesting way of asking “what” you ask “Ko e hā e meʻa” = “what is the thing …”

It can be set up in other ways:

 

Ko e hā e lea faka-Tonga ki he _____?

What is the Tongan Word for _____?

 

The word “ko” is translated in so many ways and used is so many constructs that it’s dizzying to even think about how I would begin to describe it on paper. After all, I just got into Tongan a few months ago.

But you probably noticed something about “faka-Tonga”, which translates to “the Tongan Way”, something that is, obviously, at the center of the country’s national identity. Lea faka-Tonga, speaking in the Tongan Way, refers to the Tongan Language (of course).

Faka- as a prefix can also turn any noun into an adjective of the noun. Tonga is, of course, the Kingdom we all know and love (or, at least, we NOW know it and love it!). faka-Tonga turns it into an adjective. Not just Tongan, but an adjectival word that encapsulates everything that is the Tongan Way.

Another thing I didn’t find on the internet so far was how to say “why” in Tongan. That would be “ko e hā … ai” (and it is a sentence construction, with the thing you are asking the “why” about goes in the area with the three dots).

In summary:

  • Pronunciation is extremely easy
  • Verbs don’t really change but you note the tense of a sentence with a word that indicates tense.
  • Pronouns also change for tense too, they also can change depending on sentence structure (there are four forms of the word “I” covered above suited for different situation)
  • I didn’t touch upon it here, but possessives come in two classes. Read more about it on Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongan_language#Possessive_pronouns
  • Idiomatic differences and learning what constitutes a “natural” construct will be your biggest obstacle in learning Tongan (more than anything else would be.

 

What’s more, Tongan also (unsurprisingly) has a lot of English Loan Words, and much like in Japanese, they will be adopted to local spelling conventions. This includes NAMES sometimes!

 

David – Tēvita

Mary – Mele

Science / Scientist – Saienisi

 

Tonga has great music that makes you feel as though you’re on an island (no, REALLY!) as well as a history that features it on center stage locally many times (it has been described as “expansionist”). Pieces of Tongan culture have been featured on the global stage, with the national drink, Kava, having its name COME from Tongan, as well as having costumes from Disney’s Moana / Vaiana modelled after the dress from the Tongan Royal Family, not also to mention it having been a playable mini-civilization in a mode of Civilization V (No joke!!!)

Polynesia as a whole (not to mention the Pacific Island cultures as a group) has been featured in many aspects of both American and Japanese popular culture (it was the colonial frontier for both of them!) As a result, many aspects of any of these cultures will be oddly familiar to you, given how both American and Japanese popular culture have impacted the world.

I have a long way to go with speaking the Tongan way, but it’s been SUPER fun (as well as challenging!) and I can’t wait to see how well I speak Tongan in a year’s time!

And now a song that will get stuck in your head!

Happy Tonga Day, world!

LEA FAKA TONGA